I hadn’t seen my ex-fiancee in twelve years and then I moved into his neighborhood. An accident, of course, I didn’t know he’d be there in a cute little gnome house with a pointed roof and brick walls and a turquoise door and a garden of pansies tended by a loving pregnant wife. I wouldn’t have ever found out either, I’m not big on mingling with neighbors, but my new fiancee is and he insisted we go to the big barbeque they were advertising with hand-drawn signs and smiley-face balloons. He wanted to settle in quickly, get to know everyone around. He even made a green bean casserole to bring along.
John and I stared at each other blankly like two frogs in a pond. It didn’t even surprise us that I stumbled into his backyard after all those years. He nodded at me and I nodded back. He was surrounded by a gaggle of PTA moms and turned his attention back to them. I grabbed a few cubes of lukewarm cheddar from the foldable table they had set up with fruit wedges and hot dogs and heart-shaped sugar cookies, the finest type of feast suburbia can offer. I ate the cheese with miniscule bites, wanting to occupy my mouth as long as possible. My fiancee was already off chatting to someone somewhere about something and I was ready to go home. There was no one to talk to at this little neighborhood get-together.
John’s pregnant wife approached me and introduced herself as such. She was a lovely woman, cheeks flushed with impending motherhood, watermelon-belly draped under a floral dress. She had a smile like melted butter and angelic tresses of long hair -- all that beauty made me immediately shy. She said you must be the folks that just moved in and I said yes we are and she said welcome to the neighborhood and I said thank you. She was barefoot. Her graceful monkey-toes dug into the grass. I promised myself to also never wear shoes outside once the grass in our yard was as nice as theirs.
A delicate question: did she know who I was? Had John told her about me? What had he told her about me? Was I an inside joke to them now, a mutual villain referenced during fights? Or is an ex-fiancee not something even worth mentioning? I told her my name and she had no reaction to it. I probed further -- it’s so funny actually, I know your husband.
Oh really? How do you guys know each other? came her logical follow-up question.
Uh, college. We dated for a little while, actually.
What, no way! That’s so funny! What a coincidence. What’s your name again?
I repeated it.
She scrunched her face in a I’m-pretending-to-think-really-hard type of way. No, doesn’t ring a bell. I don’t think John mentioned you, which is crazy because if a girl as pretty as you was my ex, everyone would know about it.
Of course she was an absolute sweetheart. It didn’t even sound like there was any jealousy or suspicion clothed behind that compliment. I guess it was beyond the need for jealousy at this point -- she lived in his house and was pregnant with his child. She won. What point in competing with an “ex college girlfriend.”
John came towards us with a plate of sugar cookies, his shoulders stiff like a vulture’s. I doubt he anticipated the meeting of the only two women he’d ever made an offer of marriage to.
Well I’d introduce you guys, but I think you already know who this young lady is, John. She said and laughed, a grand old inside joke already established between the three of us. John smiled but only with his mouth and not his eyes. His eyes were wide and panicked instead, turned to me and asking what the fuck I told his pregnant wife. I thought it best to catch him up on the situation.
Yes John, I was just telling your wife here how you and I used to date back in college.
Yeah we did. He seemed relieved.
Wasn’t anything serious though. Definitely not as serious as this. I pointed to her bulging stomach then retracted my hand. Fuck, was that a social faux pas? Are you allowed to call attention to the fact that a woman is pregnant? She laughed though, bless her. A pretty woman laughing is enough to smooth over the most awkward of situations.
I hope you and your fiancee stay awhile. She said. Some of the guys here are in a bluegrass band and they’re gonna perform in a little while. And I have an ice cream cake hiding in my freezer.
Oh, then we definitely can’t leave. Bluegrass and ice cream cake are my two favorite things.
She laughed like I’d said the funniest thing in the world. John seemed amused. His raised eyebrow asked oh? Fiancee?
Well, I’m sure you too have a lot of catching up to do. I’m feeling a little bloated, Imma go rest my feet, she said with a wink.
And then we were alone, him clutching a beer, me a red Solo cup of juice which I inspected closely. How does one even begin this conversation?
Your wife’s really pretty. I said. And pregnant. Congrats.
Thanks. When did you move in?
About a week ago. Isn’t it so funny we’re neighbors now?
Hilarious. He took a sip of his beer. Wanna go sit on those chairs? He pointed to a semi-circle of foldable chairs set up in the driveway surrounding one of those Walmart fire pits. This was a sit-down conversation, huh?
I obliged. It was quieter there than in the yard, and gave us a view of the entire cul-de-sac, the houses now shaded pink in the dusk of a setting sun. John got to work on the fire pit and I stared at the cracked asphalt so hard my vision went fuzzy. I wanted to talk to him so bad, let him know all the things I’d thought of and been through these past twelve years, but the words all jumbled up somewhere between my throat and my uvula.
I think about you sometimes. He said it for me.
I think about you too.
He didn’t say anything after. What was there to say?
The fire pit was ablaze, thin slivers of wood crackling and snapping, a fine trickle of smoke travelling up to the lilac sky. The first shy stars were already poking out their heads, and a faint moon shone in a silver crescent.
I want you to know there’s no hard feelings. He said.
I know. We were pretty amicable for a broken engagement.
I just figured I should tell you since we’re gonna be seeing each other probably, out in the street and stuff.
That’s true. What have you been up to these past years?
And suddenly it was like we were right back where we started, him telling the funniest, most complex and bizarre stories, me laughing so hard I snorted, him getting riled up so much his voice would crack, which only made me laugh harder, and on and on and on. I told him about my fiancée and he told me about his wife. We cherry-picked a few memories to fawn over, nothing too steamy or dramatic, and definitely nothing engagement onward. Just happy little memories from a happy little relationship that was well over.
You know, I’m really happy you’ve moved in. He said. It was almost dark then, the sun long lying under the horizon line, the fire pit casting orange shades on his face. He was older now, duh, but the boyish sparkle still shone in his eyes, his hair still bounced in the breeze as if propped up by electric currents. I felt so light inside my stomach, so pure and beautiful and glad. I remembered precisely why I had loved this man so much, why I so gladly wore that engagement ring on my finger. He smiled at me just so, and an old echo of a feeling shimmered inside me, the faint flutterings of a crush from so long ago. A momentary lapse of reason, a brief loss of self control, and my brain ran the simulations, jogging me through daydreams and possible scenarios: that we stayed engaged, that we got married, that it was him and I hosting this party, living together in this house like we once thought we would.
My name was called, and I turned around. My fiancée was walking towards me, dumb and excited like a golden retriever. All that social interaction hyped him up.
Hey honey. I called him over. Come meet John.
Good to meetcha, John. I’m her fiancée.
Pleasure. John shook his hand and ever so slightly raised his eyebrows my way. I knew what he was thinking, and that he was slightly offended that his name garnered no surprised or hostile reaction, no sudden realization. But he didn’t tell his wife about me either.
Did you check your phone? My fiancée asked. I looked at the screen.
Yeah, so do you wanna head out?
Okay, I’ll be right back. I have to say goodbye to some people. It was nice to meet you, John.
As he walked away, John asked why were in such a hurry to go.
Well if you HAVE to know. I said and showed him my phone screen and the notification on it.
Wait, what is that?
It’s one of those fertility apps. It tracks your cycles and tells you when the best time is to try for a pregnancy. We both have it, and we get the notifications at the same time. He’s pretty vigilant about keeping track. He always wants to get down to business soon as the notification pops up.
Mm. So you guys aren’t even married yet and you’re trying for a baby?
The hurt in his voice was small, but heavy, and it dropped to the very pit of my stomach.
Yeah. I answered. We just figured it’s the right time, you know?
I’m glad you think so.
Ready? My fiancée asked, already back from giving out his salutations.
Yeah. Goodbye, John. I’ll see you around. I gave him a hug goodbye, a painfully stiff one.
As we walked back home, I couldn’t see anything around me, not the street or lamp posts or clean-cut lawns sitting hairy and dark in the early night. The floodgates had opened, and all my most precious memories danced before my eyes, me and John on a roadtrip to Connecticut, me and John sharing a pillow on hazy mornings, drinking coffee we brewed with his fancy equipment, us trudging arm-in-arm through piles of fall leaves and kicking them aside. He had been perfect, we had been perfect, but I neglected the one question until far too late. That memory was the worst one, and it stoically occupied my vision.
It had been a rainy morning, and we were in a street somewhere, holding hands as we walked and stared at the store fronts. Everything was closed at that hour, no one there but us, as if the whole world was asleep and we were the only two conspirators prowling. We commented on everything we saw, making little jokes about the headless mannequins and plastic food displays. Passing by a children’s boutique, he pointed to a crib full of overpriced teddy bears in the window.
For our kid, we should get one of these. He said.
Ugh, no. That kid would turn out way too preppy living in a thing like that. I giggled.
His face was suddenly serious. You do want to have kids, right?
I was still giggly from our past jokey conversations. Ew, no. I can’t imagine, like, raising another human being. I’m not prepared for that kind of labor.
His face crumpled, and I realized how earnest his question had been. We walked the rest of the way in silence, hands grasping each other a little looser.
We always talked about everything. I don’t know how we managed to get engaged without discussing us having kids. I guess it was a case of assumptions made too heavy-handedly. I assumed we were so similar that of course he didn’t want kids and he assumed the opposite of me.
When you pick at one corner of a Band-Aid, there swiftly follows a desire to just rip the whole thing off, and much the same thing happened between us. I couldn’t give him something he wanted so deeply and though he insisted that it was fine, that our love alone was enough, that he would make do the rest of his life without kids, I called off the engagement. Everyone called me insane. I felt insane myself. But I couldn't keep him tied down in an incomplete relationship.
Me and my fiancée reached our house, and he opened the door for me with a sheepish grin. His face was tight — he knew something was on my mind. I loved that about him: he knew when things were wrong but he never pried. I thought of John one last time and couldn’t help but smile. It was seven great years we’d spent together, our roots interwoven so tightly nothing seemed to penetrate between them. Except me of course. I’d taken a giant axe and chopped down the sapling we had sprouted together. But the roots — they’re not quite so easy to get rid of. They’d always be there really, and I was glad for that. As my fiancée’s hand traveled down my back, I thought of the child we eventually would have, how lovely a home it would have, what doting parents. I smiled at this man I had committed myself to, for real this time, and felt quite glad that things came together as they did.